Contemporary dance inspired by literature

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On July 3 and 5, the State College-based modern dance repertory company VanDance will present new works in “Swans and Ravens,” a program of contemporary dance works, at the State Theatre in State College.

The program, created by VanDance’s artistic director Ann Van Kuren, draws from the sensibilities of romantic-era artists such as Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Weir and Daniel Auber, as seen through contemporary images and reflections of the world.

As a concert program of modern dance, “Swans and Ravens” delves into the kinetic pool of human emotion and truth seeking. One of Van Kuren’s most enduring series has been her captivating explorations of the mind and motivation of Poe, a gifted and troubled artist. This concept brings this compelling work back to the stage.

“I explore the background, imagination and mood of Poe’s work and then I try to put that into motion,” Van Kuren said. “I try to evoke the same experience without words that he does through his masterful use of words.”

The concert will feature the world premiere of Van Kuren’s latest dance work, “Swans Unveiling,” which showcases the visceral and unbridled energy of movement. It questions the reason for the swans’/women’s suspended existence in the “Swan Lake” tale, and how they conform to their new state of being. With breathy costumes and fluid movement, “Swans Unveiling” explores feminine connections to one another and personal strength.

VanDance’s return to the State Theatre follows on the critically acclaimed 2011 concert program “Dancing for Hope,” the benefit showcase of compelling works by female choreographers, including Van Kuren’s “With Feathers,” about finding hope in the aftermath of a breast cancer diagnosis.

VanDance Inc. is a modern-dance repertory company with a mission to promote and maintain the art of dance as a vital art form to central Pennsylvania and beyond. It accomplishes this by creating and commissioning new works, by acquiring inspiring existing works by accomplished choreographers and by responding to contemporary interests in the community and region through dance productions and programming.

Under Van Kuren, VanDance has fulfilled this mission through a broad range of carefully planned performances, events and programs for central Pennsylvania audiences. Van Kuren has choreographed for audiences throughout the region and in Europe.

Van Kuren is originally from the Dayton, Ohio, area and began studying dance at the age of 5. She trained at the Dayton Ballet during high school and performed with a pre-professional jazz dance company. After majoring in dance at Butler University, she earned a master’s degree at Ohio State in dance performance and choreography. Her early professional experience includes Fleet Street Contemporary Dance Company and The Stephen Foster Story in Louisville, Ky.

After graduate school, Van Kuren continued to train under modern dance masters in New York City and danced with the New World Dance Company. She was then hired as a full-time dancer with Pennsylvania Dance Theatre in State College, which she directed from 1991 to 2001. The company toured extensively and presented annually in State College, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

VanDance will present two premieres, “Swans Unveiling” and “The Waiting Room,” along with “The Man of the Crowd,” from “The Raven … and Other Mysterious Tales,” which is on the writings of Poe.

Van Kuren called “Swans Unveiling” a visceral and sensual piece of touching dance moments and said Poe probably saw the romantic ballet performed by a Paris dance company in New York.

“He refers to the set designer and composer for the ballet in his poem ‘Ullalume,’ ” she said.

“ ‘The Waiting Room’ is another story of suspended existence,” she said. “This solo is about a woman with a disability who lives out her dreams in a secret place while she’s waiting — waiting for news, waiting for a diagnosis, waiting to heal or waiting for it to end. The reason is a mystery for the audience to decide.”

“The Man of the Crowd,” also a mystery, is based on the Poe story of the same title set in 19th century London streets.

“A man, whose character becomes clearer as the piece evolves, cannot be alone with himself due to some unspeakable act he has committed — so he wanders continually through the crowd,” Van Kuren said. “This piece brings to mind the mysterious final days of Poe himself.”

Van Kuren has assembled a cast of seasoned and dedicated local performers, including Linda Hildebrand, Rebecca Maciejczyk, Julia Ostrowski and Abby Wilson, among others. Van Kuren likes to work with the same group of dancers all year long, and to develop a choreographic relationship with the dancers takes time. This particular group started working together last July.

Dance, Van Kuren says, is an art form and experience that is evolving through the images it communicates to us.

“A large part of the message that each audience member leaves with comes from what life experience he or she brings,” she said. “Each individual may have a very different story for what a piece means. And if you just want to sit back and enjoy the flow of the moving images, that’s OK, too.”

After attending a dance performance like this, Van Kuren said, audiences will feel more alive and uplifted due to the energy and physicality of the work.

“I hope that they feel relaxed after an entertaining experience away from everyday life and cares,” she said. “They also may feel more connected to their own humanity, their thoughts and feelings that are tapped through the music, lighting and dance — the live theatrical experience.”